This is one of my fresher blog posts. It is also one that I’m wanting to write, while reluctant to write. I don’t have a problem with the subject, the event, but I also want to write in a way that respects the privacy of those involved. Then again, I don’t want to sound like I am trying to point out my own good deeds. Rather my hope is to provide an insight of what it is like when one fumbles along attempting to assist someone, when you don’t really know what they need or what.
It all began as a simple car ride. On the occasions when I drive, I often go by that corner near the four-way stop sign. When I do I have now and again seen this woman on the corner, with what appears to be an elementary-aged boy I assume to be her son. She seems to be flagging down passing cars looking for a ride. On at least two other occasions I have seen people stop and offer her the lift she was looking for. A couple of times I have had the space to offer the ride, but wasn’t certain of her or my time schedule, and so never offered.
Today the weather had gotten colder, and I was headed north to the library, and saw her there with the boy and a man I assumed was a husband or brother. Since it was only me and the daughter in the car, I stopped and had the daughter roll down the window so I could ask where they were going. They motioned west, so I had them hop in. The daughter said not to let them in, but I told her it was okay and they piled in: the man behind me, the boy in the middle, and the woman on the driver’s side.
I should mention that I recognized the woman because she was dressed in some sort of traditional clothing with a cloak and head scarf — but not one of the scarves meant to obscure the view of the head. The boy and man were dressed in what I will term traditional Western clothing — shirt and pants (one jeans one nylon workout pants) and sweatshirts. My guess put them as some sort of Asian, by their clothing and coloring and speech, but they really could have been from any number of places.
We headed west, and I asked how far this way they needed to go. The words they mentioned I couldn’t understand, and when we got to the four-way stoplight they motioned for me to go left — which meant south. So I turned south and asked how far. It was at this point that they mentioned downtown, and through some stumbling I got the address of 12th and Grand. That would be a trip of about 6 miles to get to downtown.
She mentioned something about no buses here on the weekend, and I mentioned that I understood, as I used to ride the buses frequently before I started biking to work. I commented that the bus service north of the river was sketchy. We compared bus schedules that we knew. Turns out the last morning bus comes around 7:20, and her child’s school bus comes at 7:35, so she isn’t able to use the metro in the morning — public transport is worthless to her.
Somewhere while crossing the river the destination conversation changed from 12th and Grand to Bannister and 95th Street. That was another 15 miles south. The conversation included a comment about remembering this was the weekend. So, in for a penny, in for a pound, I followed the course of the adventure and starting driving them an additional 15 miles. Somewhere in here she started saying how nice I was, God bless, etc.
I inferred from these changes of destination that the original intent might have been to catch a bus downtown to get to Bannister, but that those buses might not have been available. It also was easier, obviously, to get me to go there than try to make bus connections, if connections could be made.
On this leg of the trip the kid followed up on an earlier comment of mine that we had been headed to the library, and he had observed the videos we were taking back. He started asking the daughter if she had seen any super hero movies: Avengers, Fantastic Four, Spiderman, etc. He was apparently quite into such things.
I noted in the conversation that the boy seemed to speak English reasonably well, though not perfectly, the mother had an accent and vocabulary that made it not easy to understand what she was saying with repeating and extended sentences. But the husband/brother never seemed to speak words at all. He made various sounds, grunts, and hand motions. He obviously understood quite well (he was usually the one confirming directions), but he didn’t have any English, nor did it seem that he spoke any of their native language — the mother and son had words, but his sounds with them didn’t seem to be words.
During this leg of the trip I asked them if they were familiar with the Methodist church near where we had picked them up. I made the assumption that they probably lived in the apartment complex across from the church, and so assumed they might know where it was. I mentioned this coming Wednesday was the once-a-month free community meal that we sponsor where people can come by and have a meal and just get to know one another. I wasn’t sure that they understood at all what I was trying to say.
When we were reaching our destination we made a small turn off our course which I quickly corrected before dropping them off at the Family Thrift Store on Bannister Road. The mother said thank you and exited, while the boy kept asking about quarters and change. I wasn’t sure if he was panhandling or asking us to break a bill for him (I never say a bill). We mentioned we didn’t have change.
The husband/brother kept shaking hands and making motions to his mouth that seem to say something possibly about eating. Again, I wasn’t sure if he was trying to panhandle or if I was misunderstanding his other meaning, and the woman was gone so she couldn’t explan what he meant (not that she had much during the trip down). He lingered a bit with this before getting out of the car. We exchanged smiles and then I drove off to the library, now 20 miles away.
Trying to do an assist across communication and cultural barriers is interesting. It always feels like we never assist as much as we should or could, and yet, as the exchange at the end shows, we are never certain about what the other side needs or wants to know if we are assisting in the way we mean or intend. Yet we always need to try to, when we can.